The Toughest Day in Prison

BreakPoint Commentary, 11/26/1999

Craig has spent 14 years of a life sentence behind bars for murder. But if you ask him what was the hardest thing he’s faced so far, it wasn’t a prison riot or an attack by a fellow inmate.

What really hurt, Craig says, was sitting down face to face with the family of the man he murdered–and hearing first-hand how his act of rage shattered their lives.

Craig met the family through a program designed to reconcile criminals and their victims. Programs like these are catching on across the United States, and often they do more than years in prison to change a criminal’s outlook.

In the American criminal justice system, most criminals never talk with the person they have wronged. At best, they might catch a glimpse of each other across a crowded court room. The crime is prosecuted as an offense against the state, not against the victim.

But in this impersonal system, the offender rarely confronts the personal pain and trauma he has inflicted. That’s where Victim-Offender Reconciliation programs can make all the difference. As Craig puts it, meeting with the victim’s family “brought me to grips with my own culpability and personal feelings of guilt.” And an awakened sense of personal responsibility is much tougher to deal with than any punishment meted out in a prison yard.

Reconciliation programs can benefit everyone involved in a crime. For victims, it gives a chance to express their deep pain and anger over the trauma they have suffered. For offenders, it gives a chance to face the consequences of their actions–and to set things right again as much as possible. Often the meetings end with the criminal apologizing and offering to pay restitution.

Finally, reconciliation is good criminal justice policy. A scandal of our current system is the high number of criminals who return to prison–again and again. Clearly, we need to look for programs that go beyond simply locking criminals up–programs that change them from the inside. Reconciliation programs can be just such a life-changing experience.

A prison inmate named Julius says he used to feel real sorry for his crime. Sorry he got caught, that is. Then he attended a Victim-Offender Reconciliation meeting–and for the first time, he said, he saw his victims as real people. As he put it, “I realized this could have been my mother, father, brother, sister.” By the end of the meeting, Julius says, he felt “genuine remorse and empathy.”

That remorse often translates into real reform. A 1992 study by the Minnesota Citizens Council on Crime and Justice found that juvenile offenders who participated in reconciliation programs were less likely to commit crimes after their release from prison.

Why don’t you find out whether your local court system is using reconciliation programs? Biblical teachings on justice aim not only at punishment for crime but also at restoration of the community. Crime tears a jagged hole in the fabric of our social life, but reconciliation and forgiveness mend that hole.

They can help restore the civil peace that the Bible calls “shalom.”